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In Winter, 1981 and Summer, 1982, The Freedonia Gazette printed the following interview in two parts. The interview has been transcribed as it appeared in that magazine. "The Hollywood Greats" made its debut on BBC-TV in 1979, with a series of five profiles from the golden age of Hollywood. Each was written and produced by Barry Norman.
The second episode of the series was a profile of Groucho. Interviewed for this episode were Zeppo Marx, Arthur Marx, George Jessel, Charlotte Chandler, Norman Krasna, Morrie Ryskind, Dick Cavett, Edward Buzzell and Erin Fleming. It was aired on the 8th August, 1979.
As would be expected, only a few minutes of Zeppo's interview were actually used in the telecast. But it turned out to be the last interview he granted, as he died in November of that year.
By special arrangement with Barry Norman and the BBC, TFG has obtained a transcript of that interview. We're ultra-proud to be the first to present it.
Barry Norman: Zeppo, what are your earliest memories of your childhood in New York?
Zeppo Marx: As far as I can remember we had a two-bedroom apartment and there were five boys and my uncle and aunt and my grandfather and mother and father, of course. Now all of those people were in a two-bedroom apartment. Five of us slept in one bed. We didn't sleep well, but we were there. Those were very difficult times because we had no income; my father was a very bad tailor but he found some people who were so stupid that they would buy his clothes, and so he'd make a few dollars that way for food. Chico would get a job occasionally and Groucho of course would be singing in the choir some place and he'd get paid for it. And that was the way we got along. It was very difficult, we always owed the rent.
Barry Norman: How influential was your mother in putting you on the stage?
Zeppo Marx: Very influential. She was very helpful to all of us, a very kind woman and she never demanded anything but she always prodded us in a very nice way and pleaded with us -- I'm talking about the older boys now. All I can say is that if it wasn't for Minnie, why, I don't know where the hell we would have been.
Barry Norman: Was she talented herself?
Zeppo Marx: Awful! She couldn't do a damn thing. Couldn't sing, couldn't dance, couldn't act (CHUCKLES) but she had that bug for someone. Of course my grandfather and grandmother were performers in Germany. They were gypsies actually and she would play at the harp while he would be doing magic and they'd go from town to town. He'd carry the harp on his back from small town to small town and they'd get out on the street some place and do a little thing and people would throw coins at 'em. That's the way they got along.
Barry Norman: Do you think the Marx Brothers would have succeeded without Minnie?
Zeppo Marx: I think Groucho would have. I think Groucho would have because he liked it and he was ambitious. I don't know about the other boys; I don't think so. I don't know what the hell they would have done. (CHUCKLES). I shudder to think what would have happened to these guys, including me.
Barry Norman: Now you grew up as a teenager in Chicago. What was that like?
Zeppo Marx: How do you mean?
Barry Norman: Was life still hard when you were in Chicago?
Zeppo Marx: Yes. My mother was always trying to get the boys -- Gummo, Groucho and Chico and Harpo -- jobs, playing vaudeville. Cheap vaudeville really, four or five shows a day and maybe three days work and then get laid off for a week or two or something. She was always downtown where the theatrical district was, where the agents and the managers were hanging out, so she would always try to get us bookings. If some act was cancelled some place, she'd try to shove us in there. That was the early part in Chicago, not in New York because there was nothing like that going on in New York. We moved to Chicago because that was the center of the cheapie vaudeville circuits. That's where my brother Gummo joined the army.
Barry Norman: And you came into the act.
Zeppo Marx: Good thing I did, else I'd have gone to jail -- really. I was working as a mechanic for the Ford Motor Company and I was a real bad boy. I was a kid, but I carried a gun and I stole automobiles. I was real bad and there was an older boy -- I was about sixteen or seventeen at that time and he was about twenty and were were pedalling around. I loved to be with him because he was so tough and I sort of felt that if I got in any trouble he'd protect me, you know, so we both carried guns all the time. We were dating a couple of girls at that time and we were dating about two or three times a week in the evening. We'd take 'em out to the park and go in the bushes, to do what boys and girls do in the bushes. We had no money to go anywhere else. This particular night we had a date, and I'd meet this friend of mine after work and go to the park. So my mother called me at work and said, 'come home immediately.' I said 'well I'm working.' She said 'quit your job and come home immediately.' And I said okay and came home and didn't know what she wanted. She says 'your brother Gummo just joined the Army and that leaves three Marx Brothers. She says 'you go and get packed and get on the train, here's the fare, and go to Rockford, Illinois and join your brothers. You have to take Gummo's place because I want the name of the Marx Brothers intact. She says 'we started that way and we're getting along pretty good' and I said 'well if that's what you want Ma, but I've got a date.' She says 'well you'll have to cancel your date because this is important to me and to our whole family.' So I acquiesced and joined the boys in Rockford, Illinois. I got right on the stage -- didn't know what the hell to do. Gummo had danced and did some straight lines, so I ad libbed some of the lines and they gave me some of the lines and the dancing I didn't do because I didn't know the routines. That had to wait until later.
So that was that. I couldn't keep the date with my friend so I called him and he said 'alright I'll keep the date with the two girls,' which he did. But the girls had two other boys who were brothers and they found out about us and they were over at the park waiting for us. As I told you, both of us carried guns and stuff like that. So they got ahold of him and they beat the hell out of him and they knocked him down and they kicked him and kicked him in the face and everything and he pulled out a gun and killed one. Now I would have been there too and because this was my buddy I'd have done the same thing and I'd have gotten in the same trouble -- he went to prison for twenty years.
Twenty or thirty years later I'm in Las Vegas and I'm sitting down by the pool and a fellar comes up to see me and he says 'you're Buster Marx, aren't you,'I said yes, he says 'well my name is Joey Bass. I'm Louie Bass's young brother and used to run around him and I remember you.' I said 'for goodness sake, whatever happened to your brother.' He said 'well he served his time and he got mixed up with running dope and he was in San Francisco and the cops came one day and he wouldn't let 'em in. He said 'I'm gonna shoot my way out of this' and they said 'well we'll start you' and they both started shooting and they killed him. Now that story shows how close my life would have been completely like his. I don't know what would have happened to me if my mother hadn't called me, sent me to Rockford, Illinois and Gummo hadn't been patriotic and joined the army.
Barry Norman: Obviously the best thing that ever happened to you. What do you remember about those vaudeville days?
Zeppo Marx: They were hectic, they were very difficult, in the cheapest vaudeville theaters where they would show these acts five times a day. Every hour or every hour and a half they'd come on again because they'd be continuous and then later on it became a movie house that had vaudeville and we'd do our act or whatever and then they'd run a movie and the next show would start and there were four or five shows a day and this was very difficult.
Barry Norman: What did you do in your spare time? What did you do for girls for instance?
Zeppo Marx: That's what we did for our spare time -- girls.
Barry Norman: Where did you find them? 'Cos you were moving from one town to another.
Zeppo Marx: Well that's an old trick the old time actors used to do -- three sheeting. Do you know what a three sheet is? When you're outside of theaters you see these posters with the names of the people that are on the bill. Are you familiar with that? I'm sure they have those in London because I've seen ours in London. After the show we'd get dressed quickly and fo out and stand by these three-sheets and when the girls pass by, of course some of them nodded, that was all that was necessary.
Barry Norman: You were all girl chasers, Groucho as well.
Zeppo Marx: Oh yes, but Groucho couldn't run as fast as Chico and the rest of us (LAUGHS) with that peculiar walk of his. It was a little more difficult for Groucho but he had his share of course. I never considered Groucho a very great lover. Chico was alright and Harpo and Gummo were fine.
Barry Norman: Groucho was rather romantic about women, wasn't he?
Zeppo Marx: He would get a girl and she would be very stupid and he'd sit and talk to her, oh, about Shakespeare or Gilbert and Sullivan. He'd discuss this with this girl who had never heard of these things and he would try to impress 'em that way where the rest of us would just get right to it. (LAUGHS) We didn't waste time with Shakespeare or Gilbert and Sullivan.
Barry Norman: Ruth Johnson joined your act as your dancing partner, then she married Groucho, didn't she? What was she like?
Zeppo Marx: She was stupid and she was pretty. We were starting a new act and at this time I was doing the dancing now, and I had previously had a dancing partner and we would do the whirldwind and waltzes that would be a specialty that I would do. And that would be part of my work as a straight man, to do a juvenile part and dancing. Well the girl that we had before, she weighed about 102 or three pounds and the dance that I did was acrobatics and I'd throw her around and I'd catch her and all of that, so I now had to look for another girl.
So I was in the pool room one day, in New York, and there was quite a nice pool room, the ladies used to go there, and I saw this blonde. She was very pretty and I really got stuck on her just by seeing her. And I said 'I bet I could make a dancer out of her' so I talked to her, I said 'would you like to go in show business' and she said yes. I said 'can you dance,' she says no. I said 'well I'll teach you' so I got her the job. And of course Groucho eyed her immediately. So anyway, this girl weighed 125 pounds when I started with her.
I rehearsed with her for a couple of weeks, two or three weeks, and I finally got her to where she was adequate but I tolerated her because I was stuck on her. But in the meantime Groucho moved in and, well, he beat me to it. It was one of those things where you lose a little and you gain a little. Anyway I did the dancing with her and it seems like she didn't eat too much before she met me but she kept putting on weight. ANd now she's up to 135 and I'm pretty strong -- I was quite strong -- but to lift her up in the air like this and then throw her around and put her legs around my waist and spin very fast, it was getting more difficult all the time. But I couldn't say anything; Groucho had married her.
Now she is up to 145 and it was getting ridiculous, so finally it got so that she couldn't get her legs around my waist to hold on with her feet, when I'd spin her. And I was constantly after Groucho to let me get another girl, but she wanted to do the dance, so I really got very angry but I was the younger brother so I didn't have that much to say, although it was my number. So I spun her one day -- I think she got up to 150 pounds -- and I spun her so hard that she couldn't hold on and she flew out into the orchestra pit -- across the stage into the orchestra pit and that finished her. We couldn't do the dance any more and I got another partner.
Barry Norman: But did that cause trouble between you and Groucho, the fact that you both wanted the same girl?
Zeppo Marx: Only a very short while. Of course I didn't spend too much time on any one girl. I felt I didn't have that much time to waste.
Barry Norman: Why do you think that Groucho's marriage to Ruth Johnson broke up after such a long time?
Zeppo Marx: Well she was very stupid and it was difficult for Groucho to tolerate stupidity. He liked bright people. At the beginning of course it must have been sexual attraction because it couldn't have been mental because she was not bright. So I guess they had regular quarrels that married people have -- I'm sure a lot of them have it, and that broke them up. I don't think Groucho was the easiest man to live with.
Barry Norman: Why?
Zeppo Marx: Well because he'd put people down, especially a woman like that who was stupid. He would put her down, like somebody that I know here [Palm Springs] that's very well known, but I can't mention the name, does the same thing and that's why this person has had so many marriages.
Barry Norman: Was Groucho like that too?
Zeppo Marx: Yes. If the woman would want to get in to the conversation there would be very little chance for that woman to get in without being told 'take it easy' or 'keep quiet and let me handle it' or something like that. Which happened to me too from my brothers, because I was the younger brother. I was quite a bit younger than these fellars and I came in late and this was one of the reasons why I quit.
Barry Norman: Groucho always seemed to go for pretty girls, but presumably not very ----
Zeppo Marx: We all had the pretty girls...
Barry Norman: But he married them, didn't he?
Zeppo Marx: Yes, he wanted children so he just wanted to get married and have kids. He'd like to stay home a lot, he'd like to read a lot -- he read constantly, everything. You konw his education was just grammar school and he didn't even complete it, none of us did. Whatever education we had, we learned from travelling and meeting people and picking up things.
Barry Norman: What do you remember about making your first film in 1929, COCOANUTS? Do you have any specific memories of doing it, was it an easy film to do?
Zeppo Marx: Yeah, very easy because the studio was in Long Island and they would shoot it on our days off from ANIMAL CRACKERS and it was very easy to make the picture because Groucho did a lot of ad libbing, although we all did. Some of the stuff stayed in, some of it was good.
Barry Norman: And ANIMAL CRACKERS was shot in much the same way wasn't it? It was a film of the stage show.
Zeppo Marx: Right, it was a good show, it was a good picture too. I thought they were not difficult but to get those shows started, that's difficult. We would have an act and we would have a few scenes and we put them together. We booked a few theatres and we would play these theatres and see where the laughs were. We'd take out the dead stuff and put in new stuff. We'd then take that stuff and insert it in the show script. That is how the show developed.
Barry Norman: And you wrote your own stuff in those days?
Zeppo Marx: Oh yes, well no, we had some writers. We had George Kaufman, he was a very fine writer and MOrrie Ryskind and we ahd some good writers, a lot of Americans I don't know if you're familiar with them, but good writers.
Barry Norman: Your mother died in 1929, I think, after attending a party, wasn't it, in your New York apartment.
Zeppo Marx: Yes, we were having dinner and having a good time, my mother and father, my wife and myself, and I think Harpo was there, and she just had a stroke. We called the doctors but it was just too late.
Barry Norman: Were you all broken up by that? You must have been very close.
Zeppo Marx: We were very very close to our folks. We took care of them and gave them everything that they wanted. We all chipped in. Even when I was making little money, I would bring it home every week and give it to my folks. They worked hard to support us, believe me, and it was worth every cent that we ever spent because there was a lot of love there. My mother would you believe it, with five boys, never raised a hand to reprimand us once. >Barry Norman: Yes. That's amazing.
Zeppo Marx: She was so so good. My father was a goo dman, too, but somebody had to do something to us because we were always in trouble.
Barry Norman: How did your brothers get on together -- were you good friends?
Zeppo Marx: Yes, we all got along very well. You know, for four or five boys to get along for that many years is unusual. Chico caused us some trouble.
Barry Norman: With what?
Zeppo Marx: Well because he wouldn't be very punctual at rehearsals or at shows. When teh overture started he'd come running in and get right on the stage, no make-up or nothing. And then he was teh one who was the most lax of all of us in reference to the act, the show, the movie or whatever we were doing. And as a matter of fact we were all sort of straight away when there was a few minutes off. One would be over there and one would be over there and then Paramount -- I remember in one picture, I think it was COCOANUTS, the director was going crazy because Chico would be in the dressing room with a girl or something and Groucho would be over somewhere and all of us were scattered. THe director says 'alright boys we're ready to shoot' and no one is around. They'd have to have two or three fellows chasing us so they devised a nice plan, they built four cells on the set with locks on them and they put cots in them in case we wanted to rest or something and the minute the scene was over, whoever's scene that it was would have to go in that cell so they knew where we were. And it worked out pretty good, but Chico got out of his cell quite often. (LAUGHS) But it worked fairly well.
Barry Norman: Groucho became your spokesman, did he not? Why was that?
Zeppo Marx: No, I wouldn't say that, not really. I had very little to say and the three of 'em, they would all discuss anything to be discussed. We'd all say what we thought. It wasn't that Groucho was the boss, in no way. He seemed like he might have been the spokesman because he was always the spokesman in the movies and theatre, you know. He had that kind of part where he'd tell Chico what to do, or he'd tell Harpo what to do, say to Chico 'I'd like to buy back my introduction to you' and he would always be that kind of boss, if you want to call it a boss.
Barry Norman: What about your first play, was it difficult to do?
Zeppo Marx: I'LL SAY SHE IS was a conglomeration of a lot of our portable acts. We put them together and took the scenes of that and made a show out of it and it was a screaming success. That's when all the critics discovered the Marx Brothers, in that show.
Barry Norman: In New York.
Zeppo Marx: Yes, it opened at the Casino Theatre and it was a theatre that most managers wouldn't go to because it was out of the way and it was a bad theatre, but it was the best we could get. The fellow who owned the theatre wanted something in his theatre, so he said put these guys in there. It was not only a big hit, it was a hilarious show, too, because we took scenes that we had played for ten years prior. Different scenes that we had developed were put altogether in one show, so you know it had to be good.
Barry Norman: What was your initial reaction to Hollywood when you came out here?
Zeppo Marx: Oh I loved it. I just loved it. The sun was out, there was no smog, oh it was just beautiful. It was so different from Chicago, with the snow storms, and New York with the rain and the snow, where we had been. We loved to come out on the Pantages Circuit, which covered from Vancouver and Seattle and came around to 'Frisco and Los Angeles. That was a regular vaudeville circuit that we played and we just adored it. We all wound up here.
Barry Norman: And Irving Thalberg, of course, had a big influence on your careers, didn't he?
Zeppo Marx: No.
Barry Norman: Did he not? I thought when he took you to MGM...
Zeppo Marx: No, that was only one picture that he made, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. No, I think maybe my uncle Al Shean had a bigger influence than anyone. He helped us a lot, he was a big star.
Barry Norman: How did you get on with Groucho's other wives, after Ruth? His marriages didn't last very long, did they?
Zeppo Marx: We didn't see much of each other, the wives and myself. Well, we all had separate places and we all had separate friends and we thought very little of each other. (LAUGHS) The last wife, Eden, she was another girl that was (CHUCKLES) not what you call brilliant, but nice. And she was good for Groucho because he would insult her and she wouldn't understand it and she'd just look at him and she thought it was cute. Groucho, of course, had that manner of insulting people -- you know how he carried it off.
One story I love about Groucho is this: When we were in plays we would go to different towns with the plays and we didn't have daily matinees, like in vaudeville, only Wednesday and Saturday, that was it. Now the rest of hte time we'd all play golf. We'd get in a certain town and we'd have the manager make arrangements for us to play at the best country club -- 18 holes of golf. That's how we got interested in golf. Years later Groucho heard about a club that he wanted to go to and so he and his wife, Eden, went out there with their clubs, and went to the desk and he said, 'I'm Groucho Marx, this is Mrs. Marx and we'd like to play 18 holes of golf.' And he said, 'Well, I'm sorry Mr. Marx, you're of the Jewish faith, aren't you, and this club is very very strict about certain religions and people and I can't let you play 18 holes of golf, because you're Jewish aren't you?' Groucho said, 'Well, can I play nine holes, my wife is a Gentile.' (LAUGHS) That is one of the wonderful stories about him. That's the typical Groucho. The other time they wanted to go swimming, and the same thing again about the restrictions and he said, 'well can we go in up to our knees, she's (LAUGHS) Gentile.' He used that pretty good.
Barry Norman: Did he resent that kind of rebuff?
Zeppo Marx: Yes, oh yes, we all did. We think it's very UnAmerican. We just don't like it.
Barry Norman: I mean was being Jewish important to you all?
Zeppo Marx: No, we were born German Jews. We don't go to church or things like that, but we were Jews and we stuck up for the Jews. Of course they were oppressed and they had to struggle for many centuries and we took their side. That's the only reason we were not religious.
Barry Norman: You have another favorite story about the Friar's Club?
Zeppo Marx: The Friars club in this country is a theatrical club, and almost all performers belong to it, but Groucho. They used to play cards there and have things like that, and Groucho never spent much time there when he was a member -- he didn't have much use for it. So he wrote them a letter, to resign, saying 'Dear Friars, please accept this letter of resignation as I don't have any use for the club and I don't get enough use out of it, and furthermore, any club that will have me as a member, I don't want to belong to.' (LAUGHS) Now that is still up on the bulletin board at the Friars, and this was years ago. It's still printed in quite a lot of papers.
Barry Norman: What do you think of Groucho as a wit?
Zeppo Marx: I thought he was magnificent. You take Bob Hope -- he can't move unless he's got twenty or thirty writers. Even if he comes out for two minutes, it's all writers. He's not an adlibber. Whereas Groucho could go any time, any day and he'd take care of it. Groucho was, I considered, tops in the entire show business world, as an adlibber. The show that he did on TV lasted sixteen or seventeen years, 'You Bet Your Life.' For that show he'd have people come up and he would quiz them. Those people came right from the audience, they were not interviewed before, he had never seen them. He had never seen these people before and he would do these interviews with them and they were hilarious. Some of those shows were just hilariously funny.
Barry Norman: Yes, it's an enviable gift, that kind of wit, isn't it?
Zeppo Marx: Yes. Very few performers have it, most of these fellows who are around now. I wouldn't know who to mention who was on a par with Groucho as far as being an adlib comedian.
Barry Norman: Was he a happy man towards the end of his life?
Zeppo Marx: When he was in his fifties, sixties, seventies he was happy, yes very happy. He did things he wanted to do. He did a lot of writing, he had a lot of books published and he had a second circle of what was it called -- intelligentsia -- that he hobnobbed with, and he loved that. He'd have sessions of discussions and things like that with other intellectuals.
Barry Norman: Was Erin Fleming good for him, do you think?
Zeppo Marx: Yes, she did, I think she kept him alive the last seven or eight years.
Barry Norman: In what way was she keeping him alive?
Zeppo Marx: He was in love with her in spite of anything she might have done -- and I don't know if she has done anything -- but she has kept him alive because he was in love with her. He was madly in love with her and she was in love with him. Now it seems strange that a younger girl would be in love with an older man, but it has happened. It's possible, really, it is possible.
Barry Norman: Yes, indeed it is.
Zeppo Marx: It happens. It happened in this case. He would not have lived as long as he did without her. She took care of him and she took care of the business thing and she took care of getting people away from him that he didn't wanna be bothered with and she would have the people 'round that he wanted to be with. They'd go out to different parties and benefits and stuff like that and she made his life happy. He wouldn't eat without her.
Barry Norman: Really?
Zeppo Marx: If I'd go to his house for lunch, he'd be sitting down with me and he'd say 'wait till she gets here' and then we'd have lunch and he'd look at me and say 'isn't she great? Isn't she wonderful?' And I thought she was because she made him happy and hell, what do you get out of life but some happiness. It's not always easy to find.
Barry Norman: Was he very ill at the end. I mean, was he very ill for very long?
Zeppo Marx: Well, yes. The last two or three years he was quite ill. He wasn't the Groucho that we all knew. His speech wasn't as snappy and as clear as we would have liked to have heard, but that's old age. I'm very curious to know whether you can understand me.
Barry Norman: Of course...
Zeppo Marx: You're not having any trouble? Because I'm not the youngest of them, that you have probably interviewed for the series.
Barry Norman: You're not the oldest, either.
Zeppo Marx: Oh really? They can't be older -- they would be dead.
Barry Norman: George Raft is older.
Zeppo Marx: Oh yes, George Raft.
Barry Norman: Tell me, can you give me a sort of thumb-nail sketch of each of the brothers in the act -- Harpo, Chico, Groucho...
Zeppo Marx: Alright. Chico was, he was wild. He was the one to play cards. He'd chase women, he did everything he wanted to do; he'd gamble everything. If he had $100 he'd gamble the hundred. It was, I guess, a sickness with him, but that was Chico.